Zola’s Turning Point
Thérèse Raquin was the novel that made Emile Zola famous, and is generally considered to be his first work of estimable quality. With this book he transformed himself from a writer of hacky melodramas into a serious man of letters. Thérèse Raquin is Zola’s manifesto of Naturalism, as it is the first of his books that is truly characteristic of his mature writing style. Naturalism is a form of literary realism in which the author creates a vividly described, credible reality, based on detailed observation of everyday life, in an attempt to illuminate the scientific forces underlying human behavior. Zola saw his novels as laboratories, the characters his subjects, “human animals, nothing more,” whose actions were strictly dictated by the laws of psychology, sociology, physiology, and heredity. Thérèse Raquin is the first novel in which Zola put these scientific ideas into practice. Soon after he would go on to write his 20-novel series the Rougon-Macquart cycle, which stands as the apex of Naturalist literature.
Thérèse Raquin, the book’s title character, has lived a sheltered life, raised by her well intentioned but overbearing aunt, Madame Raquin. Upon reaching 21, Thérèse, in accordance with her aunt’s wishes, marries her cousin Camille, a weak and sickly young man who is more of a sibling to her than a husband. Together the three family members eke out a dull existence in a miserable hole of a haberdashery shop in one of the drabbest corners of Paris. Enter Laurent, a childhood friend of Camille’s, who becomes a frequent visitor to the family’s home. Laurent decides to make Thérèse his mistress, and she consents. Soon their affair turns into a full-fledged passion, and the two lovers decide that their happiness depends on killing Camille.
That’s only the beginning. I haven’t given away anything that’s not printed on the back cover. The main subject of the book is not the murder, but its after-effects. It may seem strange to a 21st century audience, having developed such an acquired immunity to crime stories, that an entire novel could be written on the psychology of guilt, but that's what Zola gives us here. It is somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but Zola’s book is much deeper and more nuanced than Poe’s short story. Zola’s insight into the criminal mind is brilliant, and his ability to create vivid scenes and describe complex emotions is masterful. At times, however, he goes a little too far and gets bogged down in the details. So much of the action in this book is internal; we are privy to every thought, and every emotional impulse is examined from multiple facets. It’s almost as if Zola is so interested in psychology that he has written a book only a psychologist could love. The second half of the book gets a little repetitive, with the same visions and nightmares appearing over and over again. In the last two chapters when actual physical events take place, rather than just internal conflict, it feels uncharacteristic of the rest of the novel, like Zola is rushing to wrap things up.
In my opinion Zola is the greatest novelist that ever lived, so I approach his books with high expectations. Thérèse Raquin is only moderately successful in satisfying those expectations. On the Zola scale this novel is slightly above middle-of-the-road. Eventually he went on to cover the topic of murder again in a much better novel, La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). Thérèse Raquin is definitely worlds better than Zola’s earlier work, and even better than some of the lesser works in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it’s not in the same league with masterpieces like Germinal, La Terre, L’Assomoir, Nana, or La Débâcle.
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